70 Arrests As Police Raid Blair Friend

A Government race adviser with close links to Cherie Blair is at the centre of a major investigation into an alleged illegal immigrant employment racket. Police and Immigration Service officers stormed the £3.5million home of Nighat Awan on Friday night as part of a nationwide swoop on Indian restaurants, including those owned by her and her husband.

{mosimage}A total of 70 men were arrested in the raids.

Mrs Awan, 51, spoke to police while they carried out a search of her home. Documents and computer equipment are believed to have been removed by officers later.

The raids are a major embarrassment for Labour. Mrs Awan, one of Britain’s richest businesswomen, was last year appointed head of a Department of Trade and Industry-backed group to support black and ethnic minority businesses.

She is a close ally of Jack Straw, the Leader of the House of Commons. In 2004 she was awarded an OBE for her export and overseas charity work.

Three years ago, Cherie Blair was guest of honour at a garden party thrown by Mrs Awan at her former home in Cheshire. The businesswoman and her family have also toured Downing Street. Officers wearing yellow high-visibility jackets and protective headgear arrived in nine vehicles at the Awans’ sprawling mansion on Friday evening.

At the same time, restaurants and premises linked to Mrs Awan – dubbed the “Curry Queen’ – and her husband Rafique were also raided in Liverpool, Manchester, Cheshire, Sheffield and Kent. Officials from the Department of Work and Pensions were also involved.

Mrs Awan’s 65-year-old husband was not at their “White-House style’ Cheshire mansion as he is abroad, probably in Pakistan.

A neighbour said: “It happened at around 5pm. Suddenly the police arrived in six cars with three vans. The gates opened and they went into the large driveway.

“Soon Mrs Awan’s home was filled with police and plain-clothes officials. You could see them through the upstairs windows and in the hallway. We thought they must have been burgled and then we discovered it was part of some immigration inquiry.”

The neighbour said one person was led out of the house and taken away in a car. “Security men arrived from an independent company and tried to stop people taking photographs. The police came and told us there was nothing to worry about and that we should all go back into our homes and not to panic. One person was taken away, we couldn’t see if it was a man or a woman.

“Very soon after that family members started arriving in expensive cars, one a Bentley. They parked in the road and were asking the police what was happening. One was very agitated, waving his arms in the air. These are very wealthy people. We first thought someone had been kidnapped or there was a burglary. This is a very quiet road, nothing like this ever happens here.”

Shere Khan was set up by Mrs Awan’s husband in Manchester’s famous curry mile on Wilmslow Road, Rusholme, in 1987. They now operate ten restaurants in the North and in Kent and Mrs Awan’s fortune is estimated at £35million.

But on Friday night the Shere Khan restaurants caught up in the raids were closed, with police officers standing guard outside.

One diner at their branch at Manchester’s Trafford Centre, where 13 men were arrested, said: “Police arrived in dozens around 5pm and shut the place down despite people eating in there. They were wearing gloves and searching the whole place. Then the shutters came down.

“Customers were given letters explaining what was going on. They were allowed to take their food home with them and didn’t have to pay.”

The greatest number of arrests happened at the Wilmslow Road branch, where 14 people were held.

Detective Superintendent Steve Moore, of Merseyside police, said the raids followed ‘a lengthy investigation into abuse of the immigration system’, including allegations of facilitating illegal immigration.

Police and Immigration Service officers are investigating whether staff working in the restaurants entered Britain illegally and if they are entitled to work here.

Last night, a police spokesman said the investigation was ongoing and that a further seven homes were being searched in the Greater Manchester and Merseyside area.

All the men arrested on Friday are in their 20s and 30s and are still being questioned in custody.

The Awans live in a Cheshire mansion based on the White House, including a palatial lounge modelled on the US President’s Oval office. Its lobby is dominated by two staircases leading off to its five bedrooms, and the property also has an all-marble bathroom with plasma TV sets above the bath.

Neighbours in the exclusive area include England cricket captain Andrew Flintoff and former Manchester United star Roy Keane.

In recent years Mrs Awan has become increasingly active in politics. Her profile on a website run by an after-dinner speaking agency boasts of her ‘one-to-one briefings and interaction with a number of senior Government Ministers and prominent figures from the Labour Party and a host of MPs from the North West’.

Mrs Awan has previously admitted spending £4,000 funding a Labour event in Wigan – but claims not to remember if the event was before or after she received her OBE. She was also made Entrepreneur of the Year by Asian Women of Achievement, of which Cherie Blair is patron.

And in 2004, Mrs Blair was a guest of honour at a lavish garden party thrown by the curry entrepreneur and her brothers Tariq Siddiqi and Pervaiz Naviede.

They were investors in controversial genetic research firm DNA Bioscience, which appointed David Blunkett as a director shortly before the 2005 Election.

He bought shares in the company for £15,000. Mr Blunkett was later made Work and Pensions Secretary, but resigned from the Cabinet in November 2005. It had emerged that he had not consulted the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments before taking up the position.

During the scandal, The Mail on Sunday published exclusive pictures showing Mrs Awan and Mrs Blair smiling together, along with other members of her family including brothers Adnan Naviede and Pervaiz.

Mrs Awan was born in Manchester after her parents moved there from Pakistan. She started in business aged 18 printing Bay City Rollers T-shirts in her father’s factory.

In 1987 she became involved with her husband’s curry business and has since built a company worth £300 million. Last year she was appointed chair of the Government’s Ethnic Minority Business Forum North-West, an advisory body set up by the Department of Trade and Industry to help ‘develop sustainable black and minority ethnic business’.

Her father, Mohammed Siddiqi, made a fortune in the rag trade but went bust, leaving a trail of creditors who were so angry that several members of the family changed their surname to Naviede to avoid repercussions. And another brother, Muhammed Naviede, was given a six-year jail sentence for his part in multi-million-pound fraud.

Shere Khan has recently been hit by by a series of health and safety prosecutions. In December the Rusholme restaurant was fined £40,000 after a diner found a live cockroach nestling in the poppadoms. And last May the company was fined £30,000 for breaches of food safety laws at its Trafford Centre branch.

Solicitor for the Shere Khan group, Michael Kenyon, said his clients would co-operate with the police investigation. He said: “We understand there is an ongoing enquiry into the employment and immigration status of a number of employees. No member of the management team has been arrested or interviewed by the authorities.,

“The company is keen to co-operate with the enquiry and would simply like to be told what it is all about as soon as possible. Mrs Awan returned to her house when the police came. She did, to that extent, speak to the police while they were at her house. She has not been interviewed formally or informally on this.

“She has not gone to the police station, she has not been asked to go to the police station and most emphatically she has not been arrested or accused of any wrongdoing whatsoever.”

Yesterday, Tariq Siddiqi said he had not heard of the raids until contacted by this newspaper. “Thanks for the shock. I have no comment,’ he said

“Pinky’ Lilani, who has been pictured with Mrs Awan and Mrs Blair at an event, said she was ‘very surprised’ to hear about the raid.

Ms Lilani, an Indian cookery specialist, added: “I know Cherie has been up North once to see Nighat and Nighat has been down to London to see Cherie.They do know each other.”